The future of medicine is extremely unpredictable and ever-changing thus it is extremely difficult to predict what new innovation will occur and when. However one recent  and extremely technological development is billed as the most revolutionary innovation for all of modern technology and will alter medical practices to such an extent that it will not be recognisable in a few decades. This innovation is artificial intelligence. The application for this technology is extremely widespread and vast across the entire medical spectrum, with possibilities to be used in surgery and in complex algorithms for diagnosis.

Despite artificial intelligence being in its early stages of development, the capability shown in early testing is highly promising. Researchers at the John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford have developed a system that is said to be more accurate than doctors at diagnosing heart disease. This AI system, named Ultramics, was trained using the heart scans of 1000 patients, all of whom were treated by Paul Leeson,  the company’s chief medical officer and information about whether these patients suffered heart problems in the future. The exact results are expected to be released later this year in a medical journal.

Not only is AI more accurate than doctors, it is able to outperform humans when a quick and decisive judgement call is required. In a study published in December 2017, algorithms were able to better diagnose breast cancer than human doctors when time-pressured. Even though humans can thrive in situations devoid of pressure, the reality is that this optimum circumstance is extremely rare to find especially in the high pressure of situations such as A&E. The benefit arising from this extra precision and speed can be the difference between the life and death of a patient.

One of the intended uses of artificial intelligence is in surgery. Surgical robots have been in existence for just over a decade however these are manually controlled by a doctor through an interface. Since its introduction in 2005 in the US, there were 144 patient deaths and 1391 injuries reported and the majority of these were due to technical difficulties or malfunctions. However the report stated that overall the majority of procedures were successful, although there were a higher number of incidents in more complex surgical procedures such as cardiothoracic surgery. The current technology used in robotic surgery is not yet perfect but the introduction of artificial intelligence is hoped to minimize the problems and possible allow these robots to carry out much more complex operations. The benefits that could arise range from improved success rate to shorter healing times.

Before we all get carried away by the bright future of artificial intelligence, there are numerous issues and potential pitfalls to overcome first. One of the most complex issues is to do with litigation and responsibility. If a robot controlled by artificial intelligence makes a mistake in surgery or misdiagnoses a patient, who is responsible? It is impossible to sue a robot so who takes responsibility? The human surgeon who is overseeing the surgery? The engineer who designed the robot? The company who produced the robot? This is a crucial question that needs to be answered before artificial intelligence can be introduced into mainstream healthcare. Another issue is that the healthcare industry is one where compassion and a human touch is needed, especially with dealing with potentially life changing situations. Despite the numerous benefits of artificial intelligence, machines are never the best with emotions and sometimes patients prefer the presence of a human.

Artificial intelligence has an extremely bright future within healthcare with its potential to improve and revolutionise healthcare unparalleled however solving numerous problems involving litigation and the absence of humans remains the priority before this technology can be fully implemented into the mainstream.

Umar Hussain

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